Over on facebook, my friends Raka and Jay asked similar questions about the long-term drop in violence discussed in the previous post.

“They asked, and you answered, about “violence” But what they seem to be thinking about is mass killings by individuals. Are those also on the decline in the US? Who has data on that?”


“I’d be interested in knowing the rise and fall rates of different kinds of crimes — one on one homicide versus the movie theater/Sikh temple sort. Michael Hout? Chris Uggen?”

Fortunately, criminologist James Alan Fox has conducted precisely this sort of analysis. His chart below shows the annual number of mass shootings, offenders, and victims in each year from 1980 to 2010. 


Professor Fox describes how mass shootings remain quite rare in the U.S. (about 20 incidents and 100 victims per year) relative to other homicides (about 15,000 victims per year), as illustrated in the figure above. Since 1980, I see variation, but no strong upward or downward trend — a non-pattern that we sometimes call “trendless fluctuation,” at least until we can identify its correlates (e.g., a pattern that looks like this). 

This is important to bear in mind, as Dr. Fox points out, before (a) we assume there’s been a big increase in mass shootings; and, (b) we attribute this rise to factors that appear to be steadily increasing or declining, such as weapons technology or the availability of mental health care. I’ve no doubt that weapons and mental health care play a big role in such cases, but it is hard to see how either factor could explain the pattern shown above — that is, to predict something that goes up and down with something that just goes up or just goes down over the same period.

The only points I’d add to Professor Fox’s careful analysis is to note that when the numbers are this small the picture could change very quickly. First, it might change if one examined different thresholds or constructed other definitions of mass killings. Second, the chart would look radically different if, heaven forbid, there are more events in the next year or two that push the total number of victims past 150. So, it is probably best to be cautious before making any predictions about the future. All that said, however, it doesn’t appear that we’re currently in the midst of a steep rise in mass killings.

I’m often hesitant to do interviews in the immediate aftermath of a horrific crime, but I was glad when WCCO-TV asked “Are we more violent than ever before?” as part of their Good Question series. Jason DeRusha (and his colleague Liz Collin) do a terrific job with this feature, interviewing diverse experts on questions ranging from dandelions and tick spray to ammunition purchases and solitary confinement.

Since one can’t really provide a reading list on-air, I’ll offer a few supporting citations for those interested in trends in violence and homicide. On long-term historical trends, Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of our Nature is an accessible starting point. In my research and teaching, I’ve been most influenced by Manuel Eisner’s work, particularly his 2003 review in Crime and Justice. For more recent years, good data are widely available, especially for homicide. For the United States, I go directly to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports and the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ Criminal Victimization series.

Minneapolis photographers Jenn Ackerman and Tim Gruber recently shot some powerful images and the short film above to complement an ACLU report on the steep rise in elderly prisoners in the United States. The haunting photo below is from a similar series and film on the emergence of prisons and jails as the nation’s default mental health care facilities.

In my view, both series dramatize how prisons must increasingly serve populations and perform functions for which they are poorly suited. Operating hospices, nursing homes, and psychiatric hospitals is certainly difficult enough on the outside. Attempting to replicate such institutions within prisons is often inordinately more difficult and costly. 

There are, of course, alternative approaches. I’ll offer my two cents on the subject at the American Sociological Association meetings on August 18, but I’m really looking forward to learning from my fellow panelists (Bruce Western, Katherine Beckett, and Marie Gottschalk). Powerful images like these should do more than dramatize prison conditions — they should motivate us to think critically and to actively pursue alternatives.

I try to avoid full-on shameless job plugs in this space, but I’ve gotta mention that I’m chairing an assistant professor search this fall in the area of law, crime and deviance (deadline 10/1). Send me a note offline if you’d like to chat about the job (especially if you’ll be attending the sociology meetings later this month). My department is also conducting a joint junior search with statistics (chaired by Dave Knoke, deadline 10/15). And, as if that’s not enough, the Minnesota Population Center is seeking two or more open-rank positions (tenure-track or tenured) positions in population studies and demography.

If your department happens to be hiring in criminology and/or law, I’ll even more shamelessly plug two really extraordinary scholars on the market this fall: Heather McLaughlin (in law, gender, and life course) and Sarah Shannon (in crime, inequality, and social welfare). I’ve worked very closely with them both and would love to tell you more about their research, teaching, and pubcrim activities.

As our friends at sociological images so ingeniously demonstrate, images send powerful messages. Here on pubcrim and in related articles, Michelle and I have argued that popular images of crime and justice often serve to widen the gap between public perceptions and the best available scientific evidence — and that evaluating and reframing these images is a central task for public criminology. 

Since releasing a new Sentencing Project report last week with Sarah Shannon and Jeff Manza, I was reminded of the pervasiveness of certain stock images and the challenge of finding good alternatives. As I mentioned on the Ed’s Desk, the report presented some new numbers on the people affected by U.S. felon voting restrictions. Some outstanding articles have since appeared in a good range of print and broadcast outlets, including the New York Times and NPR. I’m always impressed by how quickly smart journalists can master a complex issue and then write an informed piece that really teaches readers about the subject. Of the articles that quoted me directly, I especially appreciated passages like this one, in Eliza Shapiro’s story in the Daily Beast:

Four million of the 5.85 million disenfranchised are currently out of prison, some on probation and parole. “The murderer behind bars,” waiting to cast his vote, “is an atypical case,” says Christopher Uggen, professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota and lead author of the Sentencing Project report.

Yes! That’s an angle that is too rarely mentioned in stories on felon voting. I’ve tried for years to convey how only a minority of disenfranchised felons are locked up — and that a much larger number are already living and working in our communities. The relative rarity of the “murderer behind bars” is both an evocative image and a demonstrable social fact, so I felt like I’d done my small bit for public criminology. Before I could dislocate my shoulder patting myself on the back , however, I noticed something else in the article.

The story was accompanied by the even more compelling Reed Saxon/AP photograph at left, showing faceless inmates in uniform lined up along a wall. Regardless of what I might’ve said about the “typical case,” I suspect that readers will call to mind a picture like this when they think of felon voting.  Having edited Contexts magazine and the Society Pages, I know how challenging it can be to illustrate such stories. Even if the typical disenfranchised felon is a fortyish white guy who has served his time, how do you tell his story in a way that will visually engage readers? Show a picture of Uggen watering his lawn? Not likely.

Well, in this case, the editors found many creative ways to illustrate the story. The Courier-Journal created a graphic to show the disenfranchisement rate among African American voters; the Huffington Post offered a woman casting a ballot in Mississippi; Tampa Bay Online used a woman passing a VOTE sign; the Crime Report showed a sign labeled POLLING STATION; and, the Times-Picayune used a head shot of a former inmate and activist. Still, many outlets relied on prison imagery: the National Journal offered a picture of hands sticking through prison bars; the Grio showed inmates with their hands up, being searched near a chain-link fence; and WTVR showed inmates’ feet walking along a yellow line.

There’s no right or wrong way to illustrate this story or any other, though I certainly have my preferences. Knowing how hard Sarah Shannon worked on our report’s maps, however, I was most happy to see the stories that reproduced them directly.

Some influential social theories predict a strong link between criminal punishment and unemployment rates, but the research usually paints a more complicated picture. The picture above, taken from a new article with Ryan King and Mike Massoglia, doesn’t seem so complicated by comparison. I won’t belabor all the details, but one basic idea was to ask whether the United States deported more people for criminal behavior when unemployment was on the rise. Sure enough, unemployment and criminal deportation tracked each other very closely from about 1941 to 1986 (since 1987, deportations have more closely tracked the steep rise in incarceration). The chart shows year-to-year changes in each measure, with the spikes in deportation (the solid line) corresponding to similar spikes in unemployment (the dashed line). Of course, no picture is that simple; there’s always a real danger that such correlations could be due to chance or to factors we failed to consider. At minimum, though, a picture like this could make it a little tougher to dismiss the old idea that punishment might have something to do with economic conditions.

Sarah Ferrer, a student in my current Inside-Out class, had a guest editorial published in The Oregonian newspaper this week.  Writing a letter to an editor or to a state representative is an assignment in the class, submitting it is not.  Sarah went above and beyond my expectations when she wrote not just a letter,  but an editorial, and had it accepted by Oregon’s largest newspaper.  She begins by writing:

I am not a criminologist. I am a biochemistry and biophysics honors student at Oregon State University. Over the past term, I have participated in a criminology class that has given me the opportunity to explore the impact incarceration has on communities. Here’s the catch: More than half of the students enrolled in the class are serving time at Hillcrest Youth Correctional Facility. I have the unique experience of learning about incarceration from the incarcerated. My goal here is not to give an expert’s opinion (for I am not one), but to share some of the things I have learned and to encourage readers to educate themselves on the implications of mass incarceration.

She then goes on to use information from class materials, particularly Todd Clear’s Imprisoning Communities, to highlight the inequities and inefficiencies in our current system and to push for prison reform.

To this point there are 97 comments following her editorial; it’s the third most active opinion piece over the last 7 days.  Many of the comments are very harsh and suggest that Sarah is too young and naive to deserve a voice in the conversation, or they dismiss her as being another “bleeding heart” duped and manipulated by her criminal classmates.

To her credit,  Sarah knew full well that she was opening herself to public critique and nastiness when she submitted her editorial.  And she has engaged in thoughtful, reasoned debate with the comments, clarifying points and offering additional information and perspective.  All in all, I am very proud of her for sparking this important discussion and engaging in public debate over prison reform.  Seeing an undergraduate student make this kind of educational effort makes me very hopeful that today’s students will lead the charge toward positive change, more caring communities, and a brighter future for us all.

In the wake of Trayvon Martin’s killing, Jonathan Capehart relayed a couple of the “it ain’t right, it ain’t fair, but that’s the way it is” lessons he was taught in youth: don’t run in public, lest someone think you’re suspicious; and, don’t run while carrying anything in your hands, lest someone think you stole something.

I’ve followed and admired Mr. Capehart’s clear and powerful writing since we met in the US-Japan Leadership Program. We don’t know each other well, but I happened to have this picture of us onscreen when I came across his Washington Post op-ed and appearance on MSNBC. No, I’m not a stalker. I’d been prepping lecture slides for an upper-division sociology class, using the photo as a representation of “social drinking” as a respectable and sophisticated activity for upwardly mobile young adults.*

And there’s the rub. When a black male is running down the street, we don’t tend to notice his respectability, sophistication, or upward mobility — let alone his youth or innocence. Yet the other four people in the picture can generally run with impunity, donning hoodies if we wish. Even those who resist ideas like “white privilege” can appreciate such simple and basic injustices, especially when writers as talented as Jonathan Capehart help bring them to light.

*As you might guess, I then follow-up with a few pictures portraying alcohol use in a less positive light.

Whenever I get to teach a criminology seminar, I always assign a little James Q. Wilson in the very first week. Not his influential writing on policing, mind you, but his powerful 1975 critique of academic criminology in Thinking about Crime. With his death this week, I’m Thinking about Wilson. Though we came from very different places, his work reshaped my approach and orientation as a social scientist, public criminologist, and TSP editor.

In that book, Professor Wilson argued powerfully and convincingly that (a) we lacked strong evidence about the most critical questions about crime policy; and, (b) we then fell back on our views as private citizens when we were consulted as crime experts:

[W]hen social scientists were asked for advice by national policy-making bodies they could not respond with suggestions derived from and supported by their scholarly work … as a consequence such advice as was supplied tended to derive from their general political views as modified by their political and organizational interaction with those policy groups and their staffs (p. 49) … I am confident that few social scientists made careful distinctions, when the chips were down, between what they knew as scholars and what they believed as citizens (p. 68).

During my first heady days of graduate school, I was simultaneously encountering similar ideas from Max Weber. But the spot-on power of James Q. Wilson’s polemic hit me like a line drive to the chest. I immediately recognized myself as the sort of mushy-headed liberal who sought a Ph.D. credential as a bully pulpit for offering well-intended but baseless policy pronouncements.

After digesting Thinking about Crime, though, I resolved to conduct the sort of research that would provide a sound evidentiary base for policy. I cannot claim complete fidelity to this approach (nor, I suppose, could Professor Wilson), but it led me to research questions where I could make myself useful (e.g., employment and crime, felon disenfranchisement).

I’ve also taken to heart Professor Wilson’s admonition to distinguish the research-based opinions we present as experts from those derived from our private beliefs as citizens. My friends and students recognize this as the “hat” issue: I’ll offer a private opinion on anything from Tony Lama boots to the Fed’s quantitative easing policy, but I try to be a little more circumspect when wearing the expert hat (which happens to be a brown fedora).

While I’ll stipulate to some important “Yeah, buts” here (recognizing instances where we all stray from our high-minded ideals), Thinking about Crime still functions as both critique and call to action — for individual careers and for whole disciplines. Engaging pressing policy questions can give added meaning and purpose to our work. But such engagement is most legitimate and authoritatitive when it is founded on a real base of knowledge, interpretation, and analysis.

The good news is that “what we know as scholars” has changed much since Professor Wilson wrote in 1975. Social scientists are today assembling a more powerful, relevant, and solidly credible evidentiary base; we are thus better able to offer policy suggestions “derived from and supported by our scholarly work,” while also bringing much-needed global and historical perspectives to contemporary debates that would otherwise be framed too narrowly.

The ongoing challenge, for our careers and our disciplines, is to find new and effective ways to bring this knowledge and perspective to light. Hence, our mission at TSP: to bring social scientific knowledge and information to broader public visibility and influence. And regardless of your opinion on James Q. Wilson’s scholarship or his political inclinations, he stood as a highly visible and remarkably influential public intellectual.

photo by lokarta (creative commons license)

I asked my Juvenile Delinquency students to write short essays reflecting on the labels that had been applied to them as they were growing up.  As I read the essays, I took note of the words they used to explain how other people saw and described them, and I created the word cloud above (worditout.com) .

It should come as no surprise that senior level college students were generally viewed as “good kids” – they are the success stories of their junior high and high schools.  The phrase “good kid” came up repeatedly, as did variations such as “good girl”, “goody-two-shoes”, “teacher’s pet”, etc.  A number of students described themselves as “athletes” or “jocks”, and a few students felt like “outcasts” or “outsiders”.  Several felt like their teachers and other adults viewed them as “troublemakers” which often brought more scrutiny and limited their conventional opportunities.  Most problematic were the labels “slut”, “retarded”, and “whore” – all characterizations which are hurtful just to write, let alone be weighed down by.

For the second half of their essay, I asked the students to imagine what their lives would have been like if they had been processed through the juvenile justice system and formally labeled delinquent (or, conversely, to imagine the opposite for those who lived the experience of formal labeling).  It is a good chance for them to look back on their lives and think about their statuses, relationships and opportunities.  And it reminds us all of the power of labels.  Please, choose your words wisely.